Tips on Manipulating the Grazing Habits of Your Livestock

Sheep grazing on pasture

All of you know that trying to get livestock to do what you want them to do can be very frustrating.  This is never more apparent that when you are trying to get your animals to graze parts of a pasture they don’t normally use.  However, there are some ways to help achieve this goal, and some things you will never change about livestock.

The first issue to confront when trying to manipulate the grazing habits of ruminant animals, is that you have to try to understand why they eat what they do, and why they don’t like some forages.  I say try, because there is a lot about ruminant behavior that we don’t know, and a lot that we think we know, but are not sure.  I can relate to you my observations of why they seem to prefer certain forages, and areas in a pasture, and how my customers and I have been able to modify those preferences.

Primarily, each ruminant species has a range of preferences of what they eat.  From what I can see from forage analyses of their diet, the amount of fiber in the plants seems to be a major criteria in their choice.  Also the type of plant is of importance with cattle and sheep choosing grasses more than goats or deer.

The basis behind all of these choices seems to stem from their rumen function.  Cattle have a very large rumen with a very slow passage rate of material through it.  Sheep seem to have a little smaller rumen, compared to body size, and a slightly faster passage rate.  This large volume, slow passage combination is ideal for breaking down the fiber in grasses, which are more difficult to break down than the fiber in forbs and browse.

If you will look at a grass leaf compared to forbs or browse, there are lines running lengthwise up the entire leaf.  This is called parallel venation.  These are the veins that transport nutrients from the roots to the leaves for photosynthesis and food products back to the growing points of the plants.  These veins are made up of fibrous materials that are harder to digest than the material between the veins.  And with the veins being closer together, it is more difficult for the rumen microorganisms to make contact, and ferment, this fibrous material.

Forbs and browse leaves have what is called palmate, or net, venation, in that it looks like the palm of your hand.  The veins branch from a main stem, and re-branch further out on the leaf.  This design offers greater opportunity for the material between the veins to be broken down by the microorganisms.

An animal with a faster ruminal passage rate would need to eat plants that break down faster than one with a slower passage rate.  You now begin to see the basis of why goats and deer prefer browse and forbs for their diet over grasses.

However, we do know that goats and deer will eat some grass, and goats can survive on grass if they have to.  These animals will only eat grasses of lower fiber levels. Fiber development in grasses is a factor of age, maturity, and growth.  The older and more mature a grass plant is the higher the fiber will be and the less likelihood it will be consumed by any ruminant, but especially goats and deer.

For goats and deer to eat much grass, it must be young, tender, and low in fiber.  To turn a group of goats into a pasture full of tall grasses that have rested all growing season will almost insure a poor performance, unless they are supplemented well.

Cattle and sheep are not immune from forages with high fiber content.  They each prefer low fiber forages, with sheep favoring forbs anytime they have them available.  When only grasses are available, they each will choose the shorter, less fibrous, plants over the taller plants.  The less fiber; the greater the digestibility.  This leads to another principle of selection.

Each species of ruminants will choose the best plants available in the pasture each day they graze.  That is their primary daily function, to select the highest quality diet possible.  So when they go out to graze each day, they will pick the best, and leave for another day, the higher fiber, lower digestible forages.  The problem is that “another day” finally arrives, and they still don’t want the poorer quality forages.  So they go back to the previously grazed better plants and try to graze on them again.

This is why we have parts of a pasture that are grazed to the ground, and parts that have plenty of forage.  To the untrained eye, it looks like there is still plenty of forage in the pasture.  However, you may have to coerce the livestock into eating these lesser quality plants.

When you get to this point, you are manipulating grazing.  Actually, you should begin to manipulate grazing as early in the growth season as possible.  Plants that are grazed early in the season and then re-grow new leaves are more nutritious (again lower in fiber) than plants that were never grazed.  So if you can try to get a consistent grazing across the pasture earlier in the season, the animals will be more likely to eat them later in the year.

This is the grazing management principle that Allen Savory taught.  However, to accomplish this, you need very high densities of livestock per pasture with a very high number of pastures to allow for ample time for the plants to recover and re-grow.  Economically, I think you’ll never justify the fencing costs for the number of pastures you’ll need.  And with a system like this, you must be flexible with your stocking rate, because if you keep too many animals, you can do serious damage to your pastures very quickly.

Don’t think I am completely against the Savory type of grazing.  I have seen a few people use it very well.  But these are exceptional people that are very dedicated to grazing management.  If you are not, don’t try it.  Stay with a grazing management system that you are willing to keep up with.

One grazing method you might consider is to combine your livestock into one herd early in the growing season to get a more consistent grazing and then rotate through all, or part, of your pastures.  After you get that initial grazing in the pastures, then disperse your animals back to their normal pastures for the rest of the growing season.  You will still have some unused parts of the pasture with this type of system, but you have fewer than you normally have.  Of course, you have to ensure that you have had plenty of moisture to grow sufficient forage for the rest of the year.  Otherwise you will spend the rest of the year short of forage.

Okay, so with a conventional, continuous grazing system, or a less intensive rotational system, what do you do with those areas, or plants, that your livestock seem to avoid?  First try to identify why they are avoiding them.

One reason livestock avoid some areas may be a long distance from water.  Livestock will travel away from water for about a half mile pretty consistently.  Beyond that, grazing patterns tend to get sporadic.  Now, it’s true that animals that routinely have to walk farther from water become conditioned to, but the fact remains that grazing is not as consistent beyond the half mile range as it is within the half mile range.

Another reason the livestock may not eat in a certain area is that it may be dominated by plants of lesser quality.  This can be the case with areas dominated by tabosagrass, curly mesquite, little bluestem, all of which are forages that are good when young and tender, but quickly get more fibrous than the animals prefer.

One way to change the grazing habits of livestock that are constrained by water location is to increase the number and location of water points in the pasture.  Locating a water point in a little used part of the pasture can help livestock to remain in the area more, and utilize the forages better.

Another way to manipulate grazing with water is to only make water available in the areas you want the livestock to graze.  This only works in large pastures with many different water points with a large distance between waters.  And when you begin a program like this, you may need to be sure livestock don’t go back to the areas without water and hang up there.  But after they get adjusted to the routine, the livestock learn to work in and around the water points.

Supplements can also be used to manipulate grazing patterns to draw livestock to lesser quality forages or areas a long distance from water.  I have seen many people try to use a mineral to pull animals into an area, but seldom have I seen just a mineral supplement work.  However, protein supplements, such as blocks or tubs, will work in times when the livestock are deficient in protein.  Placing the supplement in areas that are a good distance from water, or not utilized for other reasons, will draw them there to eat the supplement, and hopefully, they will graze their way there and back.  You pretty much have to use a limit-fed type of supplement for this, and the distance from water helps to limit the supplement intake.

Another option is to burn coarse forages.  Controlled burning can remove the old, high fiber forages and allow for new fresh growth that livestock will readily graze.  There are some constraints with burning, and you should only conduct burns under the guidance of trained personnel.  Tobosagrass, little bluestem, and other mid- to tall-grasses lend themselves to burning due to the high volume of forage they produce.  You have to give the forages time to re-grow before grazing and be careful to not graze them too heavily in the season after the burning.  But burning can be a very useful tool in utilizing poorly used parts of pastures.

Finally, if you have a single species livestock operation, you may consider going to multiple species mixes in order to get a more complete utilization of the forage base.  Since different species eat different types of plants, using goats combined with cattle will help to control forbs and browse plants that the cattle won’t eat.  Sheep are great forb eaters, so if you have some problems with weeds, adding sheep to the livestock operation can help to utilize the problem plants, and generate more income for the operation.

It’s not easy to get your livestock to graze the way you want them to.  Sometimes it’s not possible.  But, if you know how and why animals graze as they do, you can use some of these techniques to manipulate their grazing to more completely use your pasture resource, and not have to abuse your better forages to have success.

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